Ars Prosaica

I’m in the production tunnel now and finding it difficult to comment on my work. This happened to dozens of my students at Iowa when they were in the midst of finishing translation MFA theses and were then expected to write something about them. This required a shift of thinking and approach that they had not been practicing. Translating is not writing about, and these two activities require different habits of mind. It takes work to break out of one and into the other. Anyway, that’s my excuse for the silence of the past several months here. I’m translating.

But this passage is worth quoting, as it says a lot about my author’s way of working. It comes near the end of the book (I have many more pages to go but am jumping around in my translation work because it feels right):

It is not worth changing the names. One should leave them intact and then arrange the destinies of one’s literary heroes, leading them along a high-mountain path between reality and the text, between the life they lived and the life that is to be narrated. But in such a way as to be more plausible than reality, and so that by means of the narrative a biography of the narrator will also be sensed. Everything is true and nothing need be true.

I have resorted to a bit of translationese here, eliminating a specific toponymic expression in favor of a general one: the high-mountain path in question is a specific mountain in Croatia, but as most readers would need to look up the name to get the reference, I think it is better this way. The notion of the true here is “istina” rather than “pravda,” which has its own issues, I know. I’m not sure I understand the necessary of the biography of the narrator generally, though in Jergovic’s work it is, I think, clear.

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Writing for your friends

I remember a translation exchange that was put together by Iowa’s International Writing Program some years ago, in which several French poets and several American poets got together and exchanged their work, the French translating the Americans into French, and the Americans translating the French into English. One of the Americans, David St. John, on being asked how he imagined the audience for this work, said he didn’t — he wrote “to the language,” not to any imagined people. I thought this was a fascinating position to take for a poet, but a questionable one for a translator. I’ll probably write more about this another time because it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I wrote it down here because each time I’ve thought about the audience for this blog, I’ve run into a similar strangeness. I sort of don’t know and I sort of don’t care who the audience might. Why is that?

I have a deep suspicion that the idea for this blog sprang from leaving friends behind when we moved. My friend David said he left good friends behind when he moved to Iowa from Michigan, where he’d been in grad school, and he never quite made the same kind of friends again. This makes perfect sense. You’re a student in one place, a worker in another, a lover or a spouse or a parent or child, and so on, and so your friendships are shaped differently depending on your own shape, your time, commitments, engagements.

My understanding was of a superficial, intellectual sort at the time. I see it differently now. It’s not just that you make different kinds of friends in different places; it’s that some friendships are unique and authentic and you can never replace them no matter how you shape yourself somewhere else. These need to be cherished.

A blog is a sorry replacement for friends, but missing your friends is not a bad motivation for a blog. While I am not writing to them, I am writing for them. But for them, I would not be writing.